What Was Hygiene Like In A Medieval Castle?

What Was Hygiene Like In A Medieval Castle?

The mind often conjures images of stone battlements, jousting knights, feasts of suckling pigs, and grandeur when one thinks of medieval castles. But what about hygiene in the Middle Ages? This lesser-explored area of castle life is fascinating and sometimes surprising. Despite often being depicted as dirty and unhygienic, many medieval people strived for cleanliness, resulting in some fascinating medieval hygiene facts.

Hygiene in the Middle Ages: An Overview

Contrary to popular belief, the middle ages were not entirely a time of filth and disease. Although certain aspects of medieval hygiene would seem disgusting by today’s standards, it’s important to remember that hygiene norms and practices have evolved throughout history. In many medieval castles, there was an effort to maintain cleanliness and even to embrace a form of medieval bathing that may seem surprising to modern readers.

Cleanliness and The Church

Christianity greatly influenced medieval times hygiene, as the church equated physical cleanliness with spiritual purity. Monastic orders, in particular, had strict regulations around hygiene. Monks were required to wash their hands before meals, and communal bathing was a regular occurrence in many monasteries. Castles, often inhabited by religious leaders or devout Christian nobles, adopted similar rules, showing that the concept of cleanliness was valued during this time.

Inside The Castle Walls: Day-to-Day Hygiene

Within the castle walls, maintaining cleanliness was an ongoing task. Everyday practices reflected the societal importance placed on cleanliness, and while these may seem basic to us, they formed the cornerstone of medieval times hygiene.

Cleaning the Castle

While castles could be surprisingly clean, it took significant labor to keep them so. Floors were often covered with reeds or straw, which could be swept out and replaced when they became too dirty. This was an effective way to keep the rooms clean and insulate them from the cold. In addition, windows, if the castle had them, were regularly cleaned to remove soot and grime. 

Waste Management

An essential part of maintaining hygiene within a medieval castle involved dealing with human waste. Castles usually had garderobes, small rooms that jutted out from the castle walls with a hole in the floor leading to a cesspit or moat. In high-traffic areas, public latrines were also present. Despite the apparent lack of sanitation, these facilities were surprisingly effective in managing waste without modern plumbing.

Did Medieval Castles Have Bathrooms and Toilets? 

Medieval castles, for all their grandeur and fortification, did have rudimentary provisions for sanitation and waste management. Yet, they vastly differed from the bathrooms and toilets we are accustomed to today.

One such provision was the garderobe, a small room or privy that extended out from the castle walls, often located near the sleeping quarters for easy access. The garderobe featured a narrow vertical shaft, or chute, leading down from a hole in the floor. Waste deposited into the chute would fall into the castle’s moat or a cesspit located directly below the garderobe.

In larger castles, there might be several garderobes to accommodate more residents. Garderobes were typically built on the castle’s outer walls for waste disposal and to minimize the spread of unpleasant smells into living spaces. They were often placed away from the castle’s kitchen and dining areas for obvious hygienic reasons.

Regardless of their simplicity, garderobes were more than just medieval toilets; they also served as storerooms for garments and textiles, as it was believed that the ammonia-rich environment would deter moths and other pests.

Additionally, some castles had communal latrines, particularly for castle staff and visitors. These latrines were larger and designed to accommodate multiple users simultaneously. They also usually emptied into a cesspit or the castle moat.

As for bathing facilities, some castles did possess bathhouses or bathing rooms, but these were less common than garderobes. Bathing in medieval times was a less frequent activity, and it often required significant effort to heat and transport water, so these facilities were less standard.

Ultimately, even though medieval castles had their versions of bathrooms and toilets, they were far removed from modern facilities’ comforts and sanitation standards. Yet, they served their purpose and reflected the Middle Ages’ understanding of hygiene and sanitation. 

Medieval Bathing and Body Hygiene

When discussing the topic of Middle Ages hygiene, it is impossible to overlook the subject of medieval bathing. While the frequency of bathing varied based on individual habits, seasons, and social status, the act of bathing was not as rare as it is commonly thought. 

Bathing Practices

Many castles had bathhouses where hot water was prepared for baths. Typically, individuals did not bathe alone; instead, bathing was a communal event, often separated by sex. More frequent bathing was encouraged in certain circumstances, such as after childbirth or illness.

How Often Do Medieval People Shower?

The idea of ‘showering’ as we understand it today didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. Instead, people bathed, and the frequency of these baths varied depending on many factors like social status, location, and the season.

Members of the noble classes residing in castles had access to private bathhouses and could afford to bathe more frequently, perhaps as often as once a week. It was an occasion marked by ceremony, with bathers often enjoying food, drink, and even music while they soaked. However, even this was subject to change in different Middle Ages periods due to shifting cultural views on bathing and the fear of disease spread.

For the average peasant, full-body bathing was infrequent due to the scarcity of clean, warm water. More common were partial baths, where people washed their faces, hands, and feet daily. Bathing might also occur communally during certain events, such as before holy days or festivals, or individually in streams or rivers during warmer months.

So, even though ‘showering’ wasn’t a daily routine for most people in medieval times, cleanliness was still a valued trait, and people found ways to stay clean according to the practices and resources of their time.

Personal Hygiene

Hair care was an important aspect of personal hygiene in the Middle Ages. People regularly combed their hair to remove dirt and lice, and it was common for both men and women to cover their heads to keep their hair clean. Dental hygiene, however, was rudimentary at best, usually involving teeth cleaning with a cloth and some form of abrasion.

Did Nobles Have Good Hygiene?

As the social elite, nobles in the Middle Ages had access to resources and facilities that were largely unavailable to the general populace. This better access allowed them to maintain a higher hygiene level than the lower classes.

Nevertheless, hygiene practices in medieval times were quite different from today’s standards. Nobles did value cleanliness, and many of their practices reflected this. Their living quarters in castles were regularly cleaned, with floors swept and straw or reed coverings changed periodically.

When it came to personal cleanliness, nobles often had more opportunities for bathing than the average person. Castles frequently had bathhouses where hot water was prepared for baths. Bathing was a communal and even social event. It was common for nobles to invite guests to share a bath, which would be perfumed with herbs and flowers.

In addition to bathing, nobles had grooming rituals. They combed their hair regularly, used primitive forms of toothpaste, and washed their hands before meals. Clothing was periodically changed and washed, and perfumes and scented oils were common to mask any unpleasant odors.

At the same time, there were areas of noble hygiene that we might find less than appealing today. For instance, using communal sponges or cloths in garderobes (castle toilets) may seem unsanitary. Also, even with their more frequent bathing, they didn’t bathe daily by modern standards.

Therefore, although the hygiene standards of medieval nobility might seem deficient by today’s norms, they were relatively high within the context of their time. It’s essential to remember that their practices reflected the knowledge and resources available during the Middle Ages and what was culturally and socially acceptable at the time.

What Hygiene Was Like for Medieval Peasants?

While the hygiene practices within medieval castles were governed by a certain level of etiquette and resources, the situation was notably different for the peasant class living outside these grand structures. Understanding medieval peasants’ hygiene practices provides a broader perspective of the period and emphasizes the stark contrasts between social classes during the Middle Ages.

The common peasants typically lived in small, cramped huts with dirt floors and straw roofs. These conditions made maintaining cleanliness challenging. Homes were often shared with livestock, further contributing to a general lack of sanitation. As a result, the spread of parasites like lice and fleas was prevalent, leading to common skin diseases.

Water sources were community-based and often contaminated, making bathing an infrequent activity. Rivers, if close by, were communal for various tasks, including laundry, bathing, and, worryingly, waste disposal, leading to waterborne diseases. Despite this, peasants tried to maintain cleanliness as best as possible, often bathing in streams or using water from wells when available.

The practices of hand washing before meals and brushing teeth were less widespread among peasants due to a lack of access to soap and tooth-cleaning materials. Nonetheless, they attempted basic dental care using twigs or cloth to clean their teeth.

Clothing was often homespun, coarse, and worn for many days if not weeks or months, without washing due to the absence of sufficient clean water and the time-consuming nature of the washing process.

Despite the harsh living conditions and the challenges to maintaining hygiene, it should be noted that medieval peasants, like their counterparts in the castles, did value cleanliness. They strived to maintain personal hygiene and cleanliness in their homes as best as they could within their means and given their circumstances. The fact that cleanliness standards and practices have evolved significantly since then is a testament to society’s progress over the centuries.

Disgusting Medieval Hygiene Practices

Despite certain practices showing an awareness of cleanliness, some medieval hygiene practices seem disgusting to us today.

Fleas and Lice

Fleas and lice were a constant problem during the middle ages, even in castles. While people tried to combat these pests by washing and grooming, infestations were common. Sometimes, people even kept small dogs in their beds to attract fleas away from themselves.

Lack of Hand Washing

While it was customary to wash hands before meals, handwashing was not widely practiced outside of these times. This could result in the spread of bacteria and diseases.

Using Urine for Laundry

Perhaps one of the most off-putting medieval hygiene facts is the use of urine in laundry. Due to its ammonia content, urine was seen as an effective way to remove stains. Clothes would often be soaked in it before being washed.


The hygiene practices of the Middle Ages, while different and sometimes less sanitary by modern standards, were a testament to the human endeavor for cleanliness and orderliness. It’s clear that both nobility and peasants valued cleanliness, each class working within their means and available resources to maintain personal and environmental hygiene.

Castles, as the dwellings of the nobility and social elite, exhibited more advanced sanitary practices, from garderobes to bathhouses. These spaces reflected an understanding of waste management and personal cleanliness that was ahead of their time. Similarly, the less privileged classes tried to keep their homes clean and follow basic private hygiene practices, reflecting the universal human need for cleanliness.

The medieval hygiene facts shed light on how people in the past navigated their world, highlighting the realities of living in a time devoid of modern plumbing and daily showers. Our medieval ancestors did their best to maintain hygiene and cleanliness despite the often harsh and unsanitary conditions.

Exploring the hygiene practices of the Middle Ages offers a fascinating insight into our history. It underscores how far we’ve come to understand sanitation, disease control, and personal hygiene.